In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

The Music of Ménage a Trois

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In reality, it was an unusual but mutually agreeable menage a trois, whose intimacy is reflected in that extraordinary scene of the three of them, side by side in bed, sheltering from Hitler’s aerial bombardment.
Ursula was, in her own words, “fathoms deep in love”, but Williams told her he would never leave Adeline.

So she could only be the “icing on whatever cake he had, and not a disruptive influence”.

The fascinating story of poet Ursula Wood and British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was the subject of news in 2007 when she died at age 96, having succeeded her once-lover-then-husband by 50 years. She was 38 years his junior when they met at her prompting. At the time, Vaughan Williams was married to Adeline Fisher, cousin of Virginia Woolf, and Ursula to Michael Wood, an officer in the British army. Ursula Wood’s fascination and passionate love at first sight for the composer not only flattered the composer’s naturally roving eye for pretty women, but fueled his dying spirit as caretaker for his inherently cool natured wife who was eventually rendered immobile by rheumatoid arthritis.

When Wood entered the composer’s life, it was not long before the affair between them started. Her presence at the Vaughan Williams household was first legitimated under the auspices as young assistant and caretaker, but Adeline was shrewd enough to be credited with knowing the score. Thus, the excerpt above, which is detailed in The Daily Mail’s article by John Bridcut, as depicting Wood holding the hands of both the composer and his wife during a raid in 1944 by Hitler’s army.


Indeed, on one occasion, Ralph and his wife and Ursula and her husband all met up at the opera for what must have been a most uncomfortable evening, particularly as the opera (Williams’s own Hugh The Drover) was a romantic story of rivals in love.

After Vaughan Williams’ death, then Ursula Vaughan Williams kept the affair discreetly within her memory until her death in 2007 at which time the details were revealed by her own desire to have the true story told. Wood’s biography of her husband also provided the basis of the documentary by Bridcut, released shortly after her death.

Though it is unknown how Adeline felt about the affair right under her nose, by all appearances, however, she tolerated her husband’s relationship most likely knowing that he was a man of passion that she herself could not reciprocate whether due to her own nature or her illness or both. So, it is not far fetched to assume that rather than lose her husband, she accommodated.

Of all three, the story of patience is the most magnificent human attribute fleshed from their ménage a trois: his for caring for the wife he vowed he would not leave despite his love for Ursula, Ursula’s patient caring for both while she longed to be with him, and Adeline’s patient endurance of the love affair right before her eyes that had to hurt. Of the three, I admire Adeline the most for her practical concession of her exclusive rights to her husband’s monogamy, whether that was calculating to her own advantage or wise and charitable love in consideration of her husband’s needs, or both. 

I have maintained before that the mistress role is not easily doffed off with vilified stereotypes of cheating and deception. Sometimes–oftentimes–it is far more complicated with subtleties that reveal the intricacies of human nature adapting to circumstances, a fascinating anthropological, psychological and sociological study.


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